The Struggle for the Catholic Human Rights Revloution

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By George Weigel

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That the Catholic Church, in the United States and indeed throughout the world, has become a major factor in shaping the debate over war and peace, security and freedom, is now widely acknowledged. The deep divisions within the church over its address to these central problems on the human agenda are, perhaps, less well known. They came into particularly sharp focus this past spring.

In the March 28 issue of the Jesuit weekly America, Andrew Reding, identified as a “hemispheric affairs analyst . . . and editor of the recently published Christianity and Revolution: Tomas Borge’s Theology of Life, said the following about Fidel Castro: “Here is one of those very rare leaders who have never sought personal enrichment, who have repeatedly risked their lives for others and who have established a system that affords preferential attention to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick. Here is a lifelong crusader against racism who now seeks to extend his labors for social justice to unraveling the profoundly immoral political and economic structure that is squeezing the lifeblood out of the third-world nations. That indeed raises a provocative question: Where in the world may we find so Christian a head of state? Thus Castro’s growing links with progressive and revolutionary Christians are less a marriage of convenience than a convergence of kindred spirits. It is not so much Castro who has changed over the past decades, but the Latin American church, and with it, the possibilities for such profound transformations in Latin American Marxism and theology as are currently being witnessed in Central America, most notably in Nicaragua and El Salvador.”

The next week, Pope John Paul II visited Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. At an impromptu press conference aboard his plane, the pope had this to say in response to a question about his political intentions in Chile:

“Yes, yes, I am not the evangelizer of democracy, I am the evangelizer of the Gospel. To the Gospel message, of course, belongs all the problems of human rights, and if democracy means human rights it also belongs to the message of the church.”

One hardly knows where to begin to analyze and understand the stark contrast between these two statements. Each claims Catholic warrants, but one virtually canonizes a Leninist dictator, and the other defends democracy as part of the church’s message in the modern world. Perhaps the following random reflections may cast some light on what is surely one of the crucial historical phenomena of our times.

First, it should be remembered that several commentators, notably our friend Richard John Neuhaus, brought heaps of opprobrium onto their heads in the early 1980s by charging that key leaders of American Christianity were, by design or accident, “consorting with the persecutors of the church of Christ” through their political activism. A reader of Against All Hope (Knopf 1986), Armando Valladares’ memoir of twenty years in the Cuban gulag, would surely qualify Fidel Castro as a persecutor of the church. Valladares goes into excruciating detail about the torments to which Christian political prisoners were subjected in Cuba, and remarks most tellingly,

“During those years with the purpose of forcing us to abandon our religious beliefs and to demoralize us, the Cuban communist indoctrinators repeatedly used the statements of support for Castro’s revolution made by some representatives of American Christian churches. Every time that a pamphlet was published in the United States, every time that a clergyman would write an article in support of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, a translation would reach us, and that was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger. While we waited for the solidarity embrace from our brothers in Christ, incomprehensibly to us, those who were embraced were our tormentors.”

Whether book reviews from America are being declaimed to prisoners in Cuba today is not a matter on which we have immediate knowledge. But such cruelty would not be surprising. And thus it would seem that Pastor Neuhaus’s critique, far from being hyperbole, was scandalously on target. There is a terrible problem in American Catholicism’s capacity to even face, much less think through, morally wise policy toward Leninist totalitarianism. Surely the cause of peace with freedom is damaged when a man like Fidel Castro is proposed as some sort of exemplar of a “Christian head of state” in one of the most prestigious Catholic publications in the United States.

Second, and here the pope’s remarks are most helpful, mere anti-communism is insufficient, theologically and politically. It is necessary, but it is insufficient. The classic Catholic concept of peace-peace as dynamic, rightly ordered political community-illuminates more than what one ought to be against. It also suggests what one ought to be for. John Paul II’s three-stage argument sets the pattern here. First, the church is just that, the church, not a political lobbyist. (“I am the evangelizer of the Gospel.”) But Catholicism is neither privatistic nor quietistic. (“To the Gospel message, of course, belongs all the problems of human rights . . . .”) And, in the modern world, the church has come to understand that the mere assertion of human rights is not enough; one has to address the question of institutions of freedom. (“. . . and if democracy means human rights it also belongs to the message of the church.”)

Third, what is the future of the current Catholic debate on these questions? The picture is complex in the extreme. There are important figures in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops who are deeply concerned about the ideological drift of American Catholic activists and intellectuals. Some of these activists are, of course, the bishops’ own colleagues and staff members. The experience of the Nicaraguan church has been chastening here. But, again, it is not sufficient to know what one is against. And it cannot be said, at this juncture, that the majority of those who would challenge the idea that Fidel Castro or Tomás Borge somehow reflect Christian understandings of statecraft can articulate an alternative Catholic theology and politics of peace and freedom.

There are Catholic intellectuals, not all of them neo-conservatives by any means, who are willing to come to grips with the hard facts totalitarianism poses for the classic Catholic concept of peace and for its modern linkage to the quest for human rights and democracy. Unfortunately and unwisely, sobered Catholic liberals often dismiss things like book reviews in America as froth on the top of the kettle. Yet it is precisely to sources like America that engaged Catholics turn for ideas to inform their activism. True, one cannot expend all of one’s energies in combating ideological disinformation. But surely one precondition to a Catholic debate more adequately addressing the Janus-headed threat of war and totalitarianism is a frank confrontation with those who are, wittingly or not, “consorting with the persecutors of the church of Christ.” Maybe that’s not everyone’s tactical cup of tea. But it has to be done. And the doing of it ought not be regarded as, somehow, unsavory.

Historian Michael Howard once remarked that there had been two great revolutions in the twentieth century, the Bolshevik expropriation of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the contemporary transformation of the Catholic Church from a bulwark of the ancien régime into perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of human rights. Howard also suggested that no small part of the human future would be determined in the encounter between these two revolutions. Perhaps even Michael Howard has failed to realize that the Catholic human rights revolution-with its immense importance for the cause of peace-is not itself a settled thing. We can be grateful, if for nothing else, to those who find “a convergence of kindred spirits” between Fidel Castro’s life and works and some forms of modern Catholic social thought, for giving us a sharp reminder of the stakes involved in the Catholic debate over peace and freedom.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.